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The aging issue of Chiba New Town

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

The Chiba New Town development project was begun in the late 1960s by the Chiba prefectural government, and a decade later, joined by the Land Development Corporation, the government housing organ that would morph into the Urban Renaissance (UR) Agency in 2004. It is located in the northern part of the prefecture and takes in portions of the cities of Funabashi, Shiroi and Inzai.

As with all New Town (NT) developments, Chiba’s was meant to create a self-sustaining residential entity, but unlike more famous NTs, such at Tama in western Tokyo and Kohoku in northern Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, which are the same age, Chiba has yet to reach its initial ambitions. UR, which manages the project, runs a deficit of ¥14 trillion as a semi-public corporation, and the central government, which still subsidizes the agency, has told it to quit Chiba NT by March 2014. Consequently, there is a lot of new development taking place in the project area, though residents are wondering if it will lead to anything.

The original target was a population of 340,000, which was ambitious considering the environment. Both Kohoku and Tama enjoyed easy access to Tokyo and, in the case of the former, central Yokohama, too. There were train lines before development started. The only draw Chiba had was the potential of the New Tokyo International Airport planned for Narita, to the east. The prefecture started buying land in 1967, and UR’s predecessor constructed collective housing during the ’70s, but by 1984 the population had only reached 25,000, or 7.5 percent of the target. Apartment buildings stood unfinished.

Some farmers refused to cooperate, saying that giving up their land was akin to abandoning their livelihood. Initially, prices were fixed in the name of fairness, but in order to get the project moving the prefecture later offered to “negotiate,” which angered those who had already sold. Some sued. Farmers who sold later, during the bubble, struck it rich, but many stood fast. As a result, the area covered by the NT contains many plots unavailable for development, which put a permanent crimp in overall planning.

This land problem has forced the prefecture to revise its goals several times. Originally, the size of the project was 2,900 hectares. Now it’s 1,900. The population target is presently down to 147,000, but only 90,000 actually live in Chiba NT. The planning division eventually ran out of money, so UR stepped in with financial support, adding to the agency’s already huge deficit, which is why the government told it to get out.

The biggest disincentive for growth is transportation. Because land took so long to acquire, the railway that would service the new development, the Hokuso Line, took forever to build. Villages in the western portion that would later be incorporated into Inzai City worked hard to convince residents to sell land for the railway only to end up waiting years before a station was built anywhere near them. In the meantime a whole generation grew up and moved away. The Hokuso Line didn’t finish Chiba NT Chuo station, located in the heart of the project, until 1984, just before the dawn of the bubble era.

For a short time people poured in to buy condominiums and single-family homes, since everyone believed property values had nowhere to go but up. But because much of the land closest to the railroad was reserved for commercial use, most homes were far from stations, so commuters still had to take buses to get to the train — and yet they were paying as much as ¥70 million for land and a house. The population spiked briefly, but ridership remained too low to pay for the cost of construction, so the operator had to set fares high — presently it costs ¥1,100 to get from Chiba NT Chuo to Nihonbashi. This further discouraged people from moving there.

The railway authority’s deficit now stands at ¥23.1 billion, and while that’s lower that it once was and ridership has increased recently owing to the opening of the Sky Access express train to Narita Airport, it’s not enough to convince the railway to reduce fares.

After 30 years of sluggish development, land originally reserved for commercial purposes is now being prepared in the hopes that it can be sold for residences. Though Inzai was named Japan’s “easiest city to live in” two years in a row by business magazine Toyo Keizai, mostly due to the relatively high median income, people aren’t moving there in the numbers necessary to reinvigorate the project. UR manages more than 300 unused hectares in Inzai alone, and according to the Mainichi Shimbun, UR is going to try to sell it themselves.

Speaking as consumers interested in buying land, we asked some housing companies when these plots would be available for purchase, and they told us UR had already started accepting bids from real estate companies, though a UR representative said she “wasn’t sure” about “progress.” In other words, UR is preparing land in the hopes that someone will eventually want it.

In one sector, the agency has been successful. Over the last decade, retailers have built outlets along the Hokuso Line. There are now four malls between Chiba NT Chuo and its neighbor to the east, Inzai Makinohara. The megastore Costco and the home improvement chain Cainz are opening outlets this year, too. But because the Hokuso Line is so expensive — it costs ¥280 to travel only one station — and free parking is plentiful, most residents drive, and traffic congestion has become a problem.

UR offers incentives to retailers such as cheaper rent for a limited period, but sometimes this strategy backfires. Landrome, a Chiba-based supermarket chain, opened a store near the Inba Nichi Idai station at the east end of the Hokuso Line after the station opened in 2000, and when UR raised the rent on the land tenfold a few years ago the store closed, leaving area residents without a major food retailer until this spring.

One related issue that has attracted national attention is UR’s plans for a 50-hectare tract of land, called Zone 21, located north of Inzai Makinohara Station. The land was purchased several decades ago, hills leveled and marshes filled, to prepare for development that never materialized.

Though the ecosystem was destroyed, the area has since returned to the wild and become home to thousands of plant and animal species. Some naturalists claim it is the last remaining habitat for foxes on the island of Honshu. Biologist Shinichi Takagawa told Mainichi that the zone’s ecosystem “is in the class of a national preserve. The fact that it’s walking distance from a train station is astonishing.”

Since the prefecture prohibits trespassing, the area had been untouched, but last November UR started removing trees on the southern border, prompting worries among locals who want it to remain untouched. They say that since UR has so much other unused land to develop and there’s little demand for it, it should leave Zone 21 alone. A group dedicated to preserving the area surrounding the Kamenari River sent a petition that was ignored. UR has a plan to turn it into a park, something the agency is good at as proven by the abundance of attractive parks throughout Chiba NT, but that would involve changing the ecosystem also. One of the top reasons residents mention in surveys for liking Chiba NT is its natural environment (partly a function of its failure as an NT project), which will be compromised if UR’s vague plans are realized. Inzai City is already building an elementary school on one empty tract in the area in anticipation of more residents.

The problems surrounding Chiba NT are bureaucratic. No creative thinking went into the idea of how the area could be made sustainable as a place where people wanted to settle. Officials of UR and Chiba Prefecture have had only one aim for the past 40 years: To keep the project afloat as it sinks under a burden of debt. Though Tama NT faces an aging demographic, the population still stands at a robust 200,000, while younger families continue to move to Kohoku NT, keeping property values relatively stable. The main thing Chiba NT has going for it is stubbornness. UR is supposed to be out by March, but it will probably be there forever.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.

  • joe_shiki

    I’ve visited Chiba New Town several times, and the traffic on weekends can be pretty bad with all the people from surrounding areas coming there to shop at the well-known stores like Joyful Honda, Jusco, and so on. With Costco opening up, traffic will only get worse.

    Instead of worrying about the train stations, why don’t they develop this area with roads being a priority?

    The road through New Town is nice and they have added a bypass. They ought to extend it through Kamagaya to Tokyo on one end and to Narita on the other (It ends in the middle of nowhere now.) They might even connect it to Shisui where the outlet mall is.

    That would be smarter development.

  • Franz Pichler

    now it can’t get any more insane than “turning an ecosystem that is in the class of a national preserve into a park” – I’m not sure if I’m hallucinating or if this is true but it really cant get any more idiotic than this. Thousands of hectares of brown land around and the place the’re going to turn into a park is the “national preserve” – It’s a bit like turning “a river into a river” or a “park into a park” – Is it really so hard for these people to switch their brains on and not act for the sake of acting??!!